September 19, 2008
Note 1: Robin very subtly outed me early last week, but I needed a little while to get my groove on before announcing myself: I’m augmenting my blogging here with a blog about journalism, which will contain the insights and discoveries I encounter while doing a year-long research fellowship at the new Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. I’ll probably cross-post this over there, but I needed some of the brilliance of the Snarkmarket hive mind to help shape my thoughts on what follows. You’ll find a little background for this post here.
Note 2: What follows is an attempt to thread several very obvious lines of reasoning together into something possibly slightly novel. Not at all assured of success, so consider this a preemptive apology.
I’ve often heard expressed a lamentation for the disappearance of a news commons. When we all no longer look to oracular information sources like Walter Cronkite and the New York Times, the thinking goes, we stand in danger of retreating into our narrow ideological corners. Under this model, the front pages of a daily general-interest newspaper form the foundation for civic dialogue.
In an intriguing paper, Indiana University professor Mark Deuze reminds us that this notion of a news commons was not presented hand-in-hand with the idea of democracy. Until recently, newspapers were constrained into having one front page for everybody. Over time, we’ve come to view this constraint as a feature, not a bug.
Under the news commons model, we aim for our citizens to come to the voting booth (or the city council meeting or the church supper) armed with the same information from a few reliable sources. So democracy means weighing our common set of facts against our diverse values, and reaching a conclusion respected by all. Cf. David Mindich, so you don’t think I’m beating at straw men:
“One of the most powerful things about journalism itself is that it can communicate to a large audience and then we can have discussions about facts and where the facts bring us; but if we no longer are paying attention, then the facts donít have the same weight. In the absence of fact opinion becomes more powerful. Itís not only the journalists themselves; itís the culture apart from the news that has abandoned political discourse based on commonly agreed upon facts.”
When we decry the disappearance of this model, we speak in terms of sources or types of information, and the different values various sources bring to presenting information. We typically find ourselves in a debate between, for example, the advantages of traditional, ethically rigorous, “fact-based” news reports and those of diverse, opinionated, conversational blog posts.
This debate will never end. It’s not like there’ll be some conclusive winner-takes-all showdown between Matt Drudge and Walter Cronkite. Instead, information sources will continue to proliferate, each classifiable somewhere on a sliding scale between and beyond Cronkite and Drudge. Many folks will flock to sources on the Cronkite edge of that scale, an ever-increasing number will flock to the Drudge end, and most will do both.
What if we refract the debate? Could we change our focus completely from where people get their information or what that information is, to what they do with it? We know that people will always be motivated by diverse interests to seek information. Our mission should be to push them towards an ever-deeper engagement with that information, whatever it is. Towards engagement. Not away from blogs (and not to them, for that matter), not towards some institutional oracle of news, but always towards engagement.
With this mission, it should matter much less whether folks are reading our news or their blogs, and it should matter much more that we’re helping to turn them from readers into commenters, commenters into bloggers, bloggers into advocates. That we help them engage ever more deeply with information, challenging it, dissecting it, remixing it, drawing connections with it.
I’ve spoken many times before about Jarah Euston and the site she created, Fresno Famous. Have I mentioned that at birth, the site’s focus was arts and entertainment? The depth of Jarah’s engagement with the cause of arts and entertainment in Fresno led her (and her readers) down a rabbit-hole of reporting on downtown revitalization, City Council shenanigans, the ag industry, and other unexpectedly high-minded civic issues.
The entry point didn’t matter. The engagement was the key. That’s why I keep coming back to this point that we’ve got to stop obsessing over preserving particular forms of information, and we’ve got to start paying attention to why more people are engaging more deeply with media than ever before, and we’ve got to make sure that doesn’t stop.